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Coalfields Regeneration Trust (Wentworth and Dearne)

Volume 514: debated on Monday 19 July 2010

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Vara.)

I welcome the opportunity to debate the work of the Coalfield Regeneration Trust in my constituency in South Yorkshire. I am proud to say that it has its headquarters in the Wentworth and Dearne constituency, which I am privileged to represent, and it works throughout England, Wales and Scotland. I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) to the Front Bench; he is certainly the hardest working in the ministerial team, picking up the widest possible range of debates and other business on behalf of colleagues in the Department. In his constituency on the south-east fringes of Manchester, the last of the pits, in and around Poynton, was closed some 70 years ago.

It is therefore a useful opportunity for me to underline for the Under-Secretary and his ministerial colleagues the impact of the wholesale closure of the coal industry in a very short time in the 1980s and 1990s and the importance of the review that the Department is currently conducting about the work of the Coalfield Regeneration Trust and the coalfield regeneration programme, led, of course, by Michael Clapham. Parliament is much the poorer for not having Michael Clapham in the House. He was a very strong voice, not only for Barnsley, but for the coalfields, health and safety and workers in all industries in this country.

The timing of my debate is deliberate. I would like the Minister and his ministerial colleagues to understand that there has been good progress, not least through the trust, in the regeneration of our coalfields, but that there is still a lot of work to do. I would also like him to understand that there is strong support in the House, in local government and in the communities in the former coalfields for the work of the trust and of the regeneration programme. The decisions that he and his colleagues make on the review that Michael Clapham produces will be a test of the Government and of whether they can claim to be a Government for the whole country.

I am proud that a Labour Government set up the Coalfield Regeneration Trust in 1999, following the report of the Coalfields Task Force, which noted the coalfield areas of Wales, Scotland and England as having

“a unique combination of concentrated joblessness, physical isolation, poor infrastructure and severe health problems”

in 1998, at the start of the regeneration programme. After more than 15 years in many cases, many of our coalfield communities were still reeling from the unprecedented devastation and deliberate destruction of the coal industry at that time.

Of the 130 pits that were operating in 1981, 124 closed. More than 190,000 of the 200,000 jobs in the coal industry in 1981 went. In the Yorkshire coalfields, some 67,000 jobs were lost—more than one in four of all the male jobs in the coalfield region. In my constituency, there are four wards, in which in 1981, between two fifths and two thirds, in one case, of men aged over 16 were employed in coal mining. That was the extent of the importance of the industry to our areas at the time. There was unparalleled and unique reliance on a single industry, not only for jobs, but for housing, social and welfare support, often for sports and recreation facilities and sometimes for the financial and retail services for the community.

I am proud that the Labour Government set up the Coalfield Regeneration Trust and that its headquarters has been in my constituency for the past eight years, on the site of the old Manvers colliery, which had the first shaft sunk in 1870 and was closed by the previous Tory Government in 1988. When that was closed, its 285-acre site became part of one of the largest derelict areas in western Europe, and one of the biggest regeneration challenges this country has faced. Now, I am happy to say, it has been overtaken by new jobs, businesses and housing.

The trust has played an important part in that regeneration since it was set up, supporting groups and activities in the constituency with more than £3 million. It supported the widest possible range of work, from the Dearne Valley college to the Rawmarsh St Joseph’s football club and the Montgomery hall needlework group in Wath. Across the country, the trust has distributed grants of around £190 million. I pay tribute to the work of the chief executive, Janet Bibby, and her small team of staff, and in particular to the trustees—dedicated men and women—who are chaired by Peter McNestry. They have committed their work to backing the trust and have served the coalfields so well.

The trust is an independent charity and limited company. It supports our communities through grants, but it also supports them by linking up in a more long-term and strategic way with other agencies. It operates in England, Wales and Scotland. Simply put, the trust reaches people and parts of our communities that public agencies simply cannot reach. It helps to rebuild the community and strengthen the spirit of the old pit villages, as well as providing the physical regeneration of the other programmes.

The trust is special because it understands the unique culture and character of the coalfields, because it is trusted by the communities, and because it reaches back with families and through generations, sharing their history, but also helping them to shape their future. In my constituency, the trust gave an important grant to Cortonwood Miners Welfare club. Cortonwood, of course, was the pit where the miners strike started in March 1984. The grant enabled what was still a well-used building to become a one-stop shop for services and, more importantly, the future hub of the community. It supported the Cortonwood Comeback Centre, a group of women who originally formed as part of Women Against Pit Closures during the strike. They kept going, took over the Methodist church with the help of the trust, and ran a support group for the community and attracted other volunteers.

The trust has helped the South Yorkshire credit union, which is based in Goldthorpe in my constituency, and run a programme of debt support as part of a programme across the coalfields. That now helps more than 5,000 people in the light of the recession, and managed nearly £38 million of debt. Otherwise, those people would have been sunk.

Of course, one of the latest grants—small but nevertheless important—was used to set up a boat house on the lake that occupies part of the old Manvers pit site, in conjunction with the British Canoe Union. A new form of activity and use for the coalfield area has therefore been created.

In fact, since the trust began, it has created 119 new community facilities, and refurbished and improved more than 2,000. It has helped more than 17,000 people in our communities to find work and more than 115,000 to get skills and training for the future. It has worked on child care places, social enterprises, community transport, and debt and financial advice, and it has helped nearly 10,000 people to become new volunteers in projects within their communities. It is special and it works in special ways, because it recognises the special challenges in the coalfields.

I am speaking as a former miner and as the chair of the all-party coalfield communities group. We recognise and welcome the trust’s work. However, the Audit Commission, in its 2008 report, praised the physical and economic regeneration, but made the point that in former mining areas throughout the country, there were still high levels of worklessness, low skills and poor health.

Indeed, and my hon. Friend chairs the all-party coalfields group very ably and plays an important role. He is right, and the National Audit Office recognised that progress had been made. Some of the gap with the rest of the country in jobs and skills has been closed, but a big challenge remains ahead. That is why the work of the trust and the wider programme is necessary for the future.

The trust works in unusual ways that are especially suited to our coalfield communities. It helps groups to develop ideas in order to bid for support. It ensures that the support that it can give goes beyond the grant of money and assistance. Most importantly, the trust backs projects that increase opportunities for local people to get involved. That is why more than 250,000 young people, in the projects that the trust has supported over the years, have become involved and part of the activities that the trust has supported. That is why nearly 10,000 people have volunteered as part of the projects.

The trust is backed by local authorities in the coalfield communities, a network that is ably led by Ian Watts, the leader of Bolsover council. It is backed by public agencies that often use the trust to deliver programmes better than they can themselves, as the £3 million jobs, skills and training programme run by the trust in the east midlands demonstrates.

Most importantly, the trust is backed by independent evaluators. In 2007, the Department for Communities and Local Government commissioned a review of the trust’s work, which said that it

“has made an important contribution to the transformation of the coalfields. Initially the Trust was…a responsive, opportunistic regeneration grant donor…over time the Trust has taken on more of a strategic role, supporting larger schemes…including the targeted multi-agency work…developing stronger links”—

with the wider coalfield regeneration programme—

“and other delivery partners such as at Shirebrook or through its work on the impressive Breathing Space Centre in Rotherham.”

The NAO has said something similar and that the trust’s family employment initiatives produce work and jobs at a better rate and for more people—and at less cost to the Treasury.

As my hon. Friend said, there has been progress but there are still problems. The 2009 report by the NAO said:

“The gap with the rest of the country has narrowed, but many coalfields remain among the most deprived areas in England.”

A range of problems remain, related to those communities’ former dependence on coal mining and described in one of the reports as

“unique challenges in the coalfields with inner city type deprivation coupled with rural isolation.”

That is why the CRT is needed now as much as it was in 1999. It is needed in the coalfield areas that are still struggling and those that were hit harder in recession and will find it harder to grow again in recovery.

There is one other reason why the work of the trust should recommend itself to the Minister’s Tory ministerial colleagues. The Prime Minister today spoke of the big society. It is not new, but it is important. It is important that it complements, not substitutes for, public services and investment. The Prime Minister criticised Government as top-down and top-heavy. The trust has always worked from the bottom up—in, with and for the coalfield communities. It supports the big society actions, but it supports the men, women and young people in the small pit villages in our country.

My right hon. Friend makes a very powerful speech on behalf of the CRT. In my area the trust has delivered 83 young people into jobs through the work that it has done in collaboration with the future jobs fund, and is planning to help another 150—funding pending. Does he agree that that shows that it is organisations such as the CRT that have the real knowledge of the coalfields that the Government should tap into?

My hon. Friend has a lot of experience in this area, and he is absolutely right to say that the trust combines running jobs programmes with providing skills, health care and child care and all sorts of other support that recognises and tackles the often complex barriers that prevent people in our villages from getting into the kind of work that they need.

The Prime Minister said today:

“The rule of this government should be this: If it unleashes community engagement—we should do it.”

The Coalfields Regeneration Trust does just that. It unleashes the potential, the energy and the commitment of individuals and communities in the old coalfield areas, and the Government should back the trust for the future. If they do so, they will show that, despite our deep doubts, they are a Tory-led Government unlike the Tory Government of the 1980s and 1990s, and that they will not turn their back on the coalfields, as the previous Tory Government did.

I hope that the Minister will be able, in advance of the important review that Michael Clapham will produce, to give us his full commitment to that review on behalf of the Government, as well as a clear commitment to the publication of its report, and a strong commitment to seeing the trust and the regeneration programmes continuing in our coalfields throughout this Parliament and beyond.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) on securing this debate. I also congratulate the hon. Members for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) and for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) on their contributions. The right hon. Gentleman made some important points, and I shall do my best to reply to them. I certainly take his point that I am something of a utility player in the team, and I do not think the fact that my constituency used to have a coal mine 70 years ago really qualifies me to speak as an expert on these matters.

The right hon. Gentleman set out the history of mining, as well as describing its woeful end in his constituency and the legacy that that left behind. I fully acknowledge many of his points. Regenerating the English coalfields has been a huge challenge over the past 30 years. There is no doubt that the speed and extent of the pit closures resulted in significant economic and social damage, as well as creating some real environmental challenges.

The right hon. Gentleman described the steps that the previous Government took to set up the national coalfields programme, which last year had a £50 million capital programme funded by my Department and the Homes and Communities Agency. He also mentioned the creation of the enterprise fund, which last year was managing a £30 million revolving loan fund, two thirds of which came from the Department, while one third came from the private sector.

The subject that the right hon. Gentleman dwelt on most was the Coalfields Regeneration Trust, which last year had an £11 million revenue budget and a £6.65 million capital fund, both from my Department. It is based in his constituency and is perhaps one of those symbolic landmark organisations, as far as he and his constituents are concerned. It is right to recognise some of the real achievements that those programmes have delivered over the years. He outlined a number of them, and I am happy to endorse what he said. I have been provided with a list, which also includes the family employment initiative, the debt response programme and the sports legacy. There is a long list of projects that have been delivered and of which he is rightly proud on behalf of his Administration.

The right hon. Gentleman failed to detail some of the shortcomings that were highlighted in the National Audit Office report that was published in December 2009, and again in the Public Accounts Committee report of March 2010. It is only right that I should quote from some of the PAC’s conclusions. Conclusion 1 states:

“Thirteen years after the start of the schemes, the Department—

the Department for Communities and Local Government—

“still lacks clarity as to how its initiatives can best revitalise the local communities in which it is investing.”

Conclusion 2 was:

“The Department has failed to lead coalfield regeneration across Government.”

Conclusion 3 was:

“The Department has not sufficiently coordinated its three strands of coalfield regeneration and funding for improving local coordination is at risk.

Conclusion 4 was:

“The Department has failed to develop a robust assessment of the direct impact of its initiatives, including proof that the money spent has created jobs that would not have been created anyway. To demonstrate that its plans merit continued funding, the Department should establish the success of its initiatives using direct measures such as the occupancy rates on sites and the number of jobs filled by members of coalfield communities as a direct result of the initiatives.”

I could go on, but that would not be a sensible use of my time, so let me finish by citing conclusion 7, which states:

“The Department did not act quickly enough to support enterprise in coalfield areas. By the time the £50 million Coalfield Enterprise Fund to support businesses was proposed in 1998, the employment, skills and confidence in many coalfield areas had been lost. An urgent response was needed but the Department took until 2004 to develop and launch a £10 million fund. And the Department took until 2009 to identify a mixture of public and private funding to reach the £50 million mark.”

What that says is that, good as the programme has been in parts, there is a serious need for more to be done to make it fully effective. The criticism was sharp. We have inherited a series of failings, but we are determined to find ways to put things right. I want to reassure the right hon. Gentleman on this point: we have no plans to dismantle the programme.

We published our response to the PAC report on 15 July and did our best to address the points raised in the Committee’s earlier report. We focused on reassessing the immediate and long-term needs of coalfield areas and on ways of achieving the best value for money. We are focusing on the co-ordination of coalfields regeneration across and within Government, which the PAC charged our predecessors with having failed to do. We are working hard to make sure that the need to demonstrate the benefits of specific funding for coalfield areas is shown and followed.

As the right hon. Gentleman said. our former colleague, Michael Clapham, is chairing the review of coalfields regeneration. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing has already met him, and I echo the right hon. Gentleman’s praise for Mr Clapham’s tireless support for miners, the mining industry and the victims of industrial diseases in general. I am sure that he will be an admirable and effective chair of the review.

The review will help the Government to take decisions on the direction of future interventions in former mining constituencies, both for the remainder of the current spending period and also into the next comprehensive spending review period. The consultation period closed on 30 June, and I understand work has begun on drafting the report. The Minister for Housing and I look forward to receiving Michael Clapham’s report at the end of August. To confirm what the right hon. Gentleman asked me about, publication of that report will be well timed for fitting in with the Government’s current spending review, which the House will know is planned to be announced on 20 October. I confirm that publication of the report is certainly in our minds.

The review is intended to look at the way in which the current programmes are delivered. We expect there to be a major role for local authorities, but we are clear about the fact that there must also be a joined-up approach, with all partners—including the local communities themselves—working together. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the Prime Minister’s statement today. We are certainly committed to a bottom-up community-focused approach.

The Government remain supportive of action to meet the continuing need for land-based remediation, remain strongly supportive of community-led regeneration projects and are committed to helping communities to come together to tackle local problems and support local enterprises, especially in vulnerable areas such as the former coalfields. Those three strands were in the initial programme, and we intend to make progress with all of them. We must ensure that all possible ways of securing maximum efficiencies are considered, particularly in the current climate. As the right hon. Gentleman knows—and as the whole House knows—the spending review will be extremely difficult, and hard choices will need to be made. Whatever the outcome, we can at least ensure that we get value for money from the resources going into the coalfields communities.

The right hon. Gentleman is an old hand who has stood at this Dispatch Box fending people off, and he will appreciate that I cannot make any promises ahead of the comprehensive spending review; but I will say that I have heard his messages, and I hope he has heard mine. The spending review will be difficult, but we recognise the important work of the Coalfields Regeneration Trust in helping to improve coalfield communities, and we are absolutely determined to ensure that every penny spent gives full value for money not just to the taxpayer, but to the communities that it is designed to help.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.